Finnish radio hobbyist catches WKAR signal from thousands of miles away
WKAR’s broadcast signal stretches across mid-Michigan, but that doesn’t mean the station's reach ends there.
A chance occurrence recently let someone across the Atlantic Ocean in Scandinavia briefly tune in.
At the end of October, Mika Mäkeläinen caught the tail end of a broadcast on the AM feed of WKAR Newstalk just before Kevin Lavery signed off at 7 p.m.
He was listening from nearly 4,000 miles away in Lapland, Finland, using specialized radio equipment.
Mäkeläinen’s obsession with radio began in his early teens. The programs airing on the Finnish Broadcasting Company at the time weren’t playing the songs he liked, so he looked elsewhere.
"I wasn't very happy with the music programs that they had, and so I listened to foreign radio stations," he said.
But once Mäkeläinen started searching for new frequencies, he found himself more interested in what stations he could discover, rather than the music they were playing.
I just wanted to make discoveries on the dial.Mika Mäkeläinen
"I just wanted to find new stations, all the time, new stations from further away, low power stations, exotic programming [and] different languages, and I just wanted to make discoveries on the dial."
About 40 years later, the now-journalist based in the country's capital city of Helsinki is just as invested in catching the invisible airwaves moving around us all the time.
He does what’s called DXing. The hobby is all about receiving and identifying distant or “DX” radio signals.
The practice has been around since the time radio broadcasting began about a century ago.
"Radio listeners started sending in so called 'reception reports,'" he explained. "They would tell the station that 'I was able I was able to pick you up this particular date and time, and this is my location. This is my equipment that I used.'"
The technology has gotten a lot more advanced since then. Mäkeläinen, along with a group of friends, has built a base in far north and remote Finland where they have installed more than a dozen kilometer-long antennas to pick up radio signals from around the world.
DXers can specialize in tuning into all types of radio waves, but Mäkeläinen’s focus is on AM or mediumwave ones, like WKAR's AM 870 station.
"AM is full of surprises. You never know what's going to be heard on one particular channel or one particular frequency," he said.
"One night, it can be one station. The following night, it's a totally different station."
During the day, AM waves can travel short distances, but eventually they’re absorbed by an upper part of the atmosphere impacted by solar radiation called the ionosphere, but all that changes once the sun sets.
"During the nighttime, the AM band, it's actually quite a mess," he said.
Without the sun, sound from AM stations can travel farther and bounce back off the atmosphere down to different parts of the world. That’s why Mäkeläinen has heard stations in places as far away as New Zealand.
But finding a station like WKAR among all that noise be difficult. There’s solar radiation in the atmosphere that’s always changing. There’s an AM station in New Orleans on the same 870 frequency that’s a lot more powerful. And it needs to be after dark, but before the station sign off for the night.
"When the time of sunset approaches, everything has to be exactly right for us to be able to pick up your station," Mäkeläinen said.
Drew Henderson is WKAR’s Senior Director of Broadcast operations.
"It’s my job to get the signal to the antenna, what happens after that is up to the laws of physics," Henderson said.
He says every year he hears from a few DXers who have been able to tune into WKAR from far away, though typically only one of them is an international hobbyist. But he’s not surprised that Mäkeläinen heard the station in Finland because of the direction of our antenna.
"It is set up so that most of the signal goes to the north-northeast, which if you draw a line over the globe you’re going to end up in that Nordic region of Europe."
The old-school reception reports have mostly become of a thing of the past.
Even though I've been monitoring the AM dial for forty years, I still find new stations every time I open up my radio.Mika Mäkeläinen
Mäkeläinen still likes to send emails to the stations he hears to let them know that he picked them up, and it’s a feather in his cap for when he next gets together with his friends.
"This is sort of what counts as a point for me because we like to compare our achievements, you know, who listens to most stations from all around the world."
DXing has gotten less popular over the years because it's easier to listen music and international programs online.
For Mäkeläinen, what got him into the hobby decades ago is the same reason he still does it today
"This is the excitement of being able to make discoveries is what keeps it interesting," he said.
"Even though I've been monitoring the AM dial for forty years, I still find new stations every time I open up my radio."